Monthly Archives: September 2014

Epidsode Eval: Barakamon (Ep. 9) – Handa Saw the Sun

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Handa noticing the beauty of the stars

Barakamon, Episode 9: A

This week’s Barakamon gets the show back on track after a handful of episodes that, while plenty good, seemed to lack direction–though I guess that IS what this show is all about.

As a looming deadline draws near, Handa feels stalled in his calligraphy creativity. As luck would have it, everything from his water heater giving out to bigger kids disrupting Naru and her friends’ play, allow Handa to get away from his road blocks and focus on the simpler things in life.

Here we get a series of adventures with Handa and the crew that fit well with many of the episodes we’ve gotten throughout the season, as far as the central message goes. Barakamon has always been about escaping the rat race and clearing one’s head in order to free one’s self from the limitations of expectations. Handa has struggled to shrug off those very expectations ever since he first came to the island, and though he’s still weighted down by them, it seems he is closer each episode to being a truly free artistic presence. That plays out here through his consistent worrying about wasting his time out-and-about in the village, when he could be at home practicing or working on calligraphy–self-expectations.

Image of Naru trying to prep a home remedy for Handa

Though he enjoys himself in his fixed up bath–Naru keeps an eye on an external flame that keeps the bath warm–and potentially gains a better understanding of dealing with children–he and Hiroshi attempt to remove some bullying older kids from Naru and co.’s park–Handa still frets about the lack of calligraphy work he accomplishes. It’s not until a randomly transcendent moment–as most transcendent moments are–that Handa breaks through his barriers to creativity, and his imagination runs free. The new piece of calligraphy he produces is certainly unique, and the entire segment recalls the moment from the first episode, wherein Handa overcame his anger with the calligraphy movement as a whole by painting a wily and electric piece that simply read “fun”. This episode breathes new life into the running theme of allowing the world around you to influence your art, rather than trying to force the opposite. Sitting down at a desk and staring at a blinking cursor–or standing in front of a blank canvas, as the case may be–can only get you so far. It’s living life and experiencing the ways that the people around you work, function and live, that allows you to grow as a person, much less an artist. What’s more, when Handa loses himself in a particular action–let’s say figuring out the best way to scare off older grade school kids as an adult–he frees up his mind from the massive expectations he lays on himself, which allows his creativity to blossom outside of its usual box.

While the message is spectacular, I’m really digging the storytelling this time around as well. We have the overarching story of Handa accidentally getting away from his work through several different mini-adventures. It all reminds me of the best of the Peanuts specials, wherein there is a central theme that is surrounded by various and sundry scenes–usually built on jokes from the comic strip–that do their own thing. You’d think that these handful of stories wouldn’t really fit together and may even become unruly when appended to one another, but the core conceit of Barakamon allows almost any storyline to work, so long as it takes place on the island, involves Handa’s neighbors and puts him squarely in the “fish out of water” camp.

Image of Handa sitting defeated on his bathtub

Lastly, though I’m usually hesitant to put my thoughts down on a given episode’s animation–seeing as how I’m still learning the ins and outs of truly reviewing/assessing the art itself–it’s hard not to point to this week’s episode of Barakamon, as well as the series as a whole, as a shining example of animation at its best. Every scene is drawn, inked and painted with a level of care and consistency that allows the audience to easily get sucked into the show’s universe, without a badly drawn character or backdrop–see Sailor Moon Crystal–to take the viewer’s eye away from what matters. Even better, Barakamon isn’t cautious to employ different art styles just to land a silly joke, as seen above. Or is it silly? The exact skillfulness of the art in that particular scene, happens to impact the comedy therein by legitimizing it. Compare this scene to one in which we cut to our protagonist with a nose bleed in front of a blank backdrop, and it’s easier to see which version better showcases the comedy stylings of the series. This shot from the episode so perfectly captures Handa’s mood and level of defeat, as to not require a single word from him. With the average anime dialogue being as translucent and expository as can be–from series to series, of course–any style that can cancel out the need for words, is okay in my book.

Lately, I’ve been taking a cue from Barakamon; removing my ear buds when I walk through campus in order to hear the conversations of those around me. Great art isn’t informed simply by our inner being, but by each and every person we interact with throughout our day, from the stray conversation we hear on a bus, to the person we lay down next to each night. Though he may not know it, Naru and co. are doing more for Handa’s calligraphic talents than mere practice really could–especially at his level. Suffice it to say, were it built on its charm along, Barakamon would be a stellar series to check out. Luckily we get ideologies as strong as the one seen here, that truly push this series into the realm of the superb.

Epidsode Eval: Aldnoah.Zero (Ep. 9) – Breakdown at 20,000 Feet

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Marito knealing below a giant burning mech

Aldnoah.Zero, Episode 9: B+

The 9th episode of Aldnoah.Zero is a mixed bag–aside from the few but terrific scenes featuring Slaine, per the usual–even up to a shocking ending that’s hard to square.

After being captured by Saazbaum at the end of last episode, Slaine is treated quite differently here, but is still interrogated for information on the princess for whom he is still loyal. Meanwhile aboard the Deucalion, Rayet–the girl who’s family was killed by Trillram the Martian–gets put through the paces in a training simulation that causes her to relive the moment of her family’s death. Lt. Marito goes through a similar moment of crises, as he is forced to relive the death of his friend in the last Earth/Mars war of 15 years past. With mental exercises pushed to their extremes, all does not seem right aboard the Deucalion.

This week’s episode was at least smart enough to push Inaho into the background somewhat, while bringing more interesting characters like Rayet and Lt. Marito to the foreground. That being said, there was an odd and eerie feeling to this episode–one that pays off in the last few minutes–that made it a relatively unenjoyable watch. I’m still struggling to decide if that says something about the quality of the writing or if the lack of comfortability with the viewing experience here adds to the overall mood and tone. After all, Neon Genesis Evangelion was rarely a fun show to watch–save for a handful of episodes in the middle of the series–but what it lacked in sun shine and daffodils, it made up for in some of the most engaging character development yet seen in anime.

One issue, is that Aldnoah.Zero still seems like it’s struggling to understand what it wants to be; until now, it has been more interested in telling an exciting action story with some darker elements, rather than the other way around. Here though, the series does a decently convincing job–at least for a mech anime–of approaching the PTSD that haunts Rayet and Lt. Marito. We see that both of the characters have borderline psychological breakdowns when confronted with some of the imagery from their individual experiences. Though hard to watch, these segments work as an asset to Aldnoah.Zero, planting the show solidly between the more flippant mech series we’ve seen over the years and their navel-gazing siblings. While Lt. Marito is digging up old wounds, he seems fairly capable of dealing with his memories, though they may haunt him. Rayet, on the other hand, seems particularly broken by the events that led to the death of her family, forcing the turning point for this series.

Image of Slaine threatening Saazbaum

***SPOILERIFIC SPOIL TOWN*** No, but seriously, this is a big one, so skip to the next paragraph like this, if you don’t want anything spoiled. The most controversial section of this episode involves the fallout from Rayet’s slowly decomposing mental state–though how unstable she actually is isn’t entirely known to us just yet–due to her growing hatred for any and all Martians. Whilst in the shower, Rayet hears Princess Asseylum several stalls over, her helper away on an errand and the Princess vulnerable in her assumed safety. Rayet coldly walks over to the Princesses’ stall, pulls back the curtain and proceeds to strangle her to death, leaving her cold body limp on the shower floor. It’s quite a shocking scene–probably the most surprising of the season–which begs the question, is Rayet’s unforgivable deed simply meant for shock value to garner attention, or will it serve some greater purpose, as far as the conclusion of the series goes? We already see some fallout–literally–as the Deucalion, usually powered by the Princesses’ aldnoah drive, begins to descend from the clouds and crashes onto the land. What’s more, the story has been set up so that many plot points hinge on Princess Asseylum NOT being dead, meaning that Rayet’s murderous ways have certainly shifted the direction of the show. So why call it shock value if it has purpose? Inherent in the fact that said murder occurs in a women’s shower room, both Rayet and the Princess are nude during this scene, the audience seeing the top half of each girl’s breasts. To be sure, it’s an unsettling situation to imagine a murder occurring in; Asseylum is rightfully at her most vulnerable, as are we all in such a situation. These shots even recall the murder scene from Psycho–both taking place in a shower–in that the action itself takes us by surprise in such a way, though the director here lacks any of the artistic hubris which Hitchcock employed in order for the audience to imagine more of the murder than they physically saw. Ultimately that’s my main issue with this ending; a lack of subtlety in the out-and-out nudity of the two girls, which takes us out of the moment itself. In Psycho, Janet Leigh is never shown below the shoulders because we don’t need to see her body to understand how vulnerable she is in that moment–just try taking a shower after watching that film without glancing a few times over your shoulder at the shower curtain. Here however, Rayet and Asseylum’s bodies are showcased for the same titillating reasons that I discussed in yesterday’s post about LocoDol; in other words, it’s completely unnecessary. Just another anime trope that weights down a potentially impactive scene. Don’t get me wrong. As mentioned earlier, the scene still plays as a shocking moment that truly takes the audience by surprise and
completely alters the direction of the show, but it could be handled with much more respect for the characters, especially considering that it’s the last moments of life for one of them.

Image of Magbaredge leaning against the ship

As it stands, this episode will likely be judged most by what comes after it. Will Aldnoah.Zero continue down this darkened past, or will it return to the rip-roaring mecha-on-mecha action we were served up in the first half of the series? Honestly, I’m good either way. The show’s action scenes are possibly the best of the season–the animation and direction superior to Tokyo Ghoul and right on par with Zankyou no Terror–but it also seems prepared to delve deeper into the psychology of its main characters, entering a Neon Genesis-lite phase. Whichever way it goes from here, I can safely say that Aldnoah.Zero is proving itself to be more than just a mech series, so check it out if you haven’t yet. After the way this episode ends, I’m really intrigued to see which route they’ll take next.

Epidsode Eval: LocoDol (Ep. 10) – Idols and Lyrics

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Nanako and Yukari post-lyric writing

LocoDol, Episode 10: B+

This week’s LocoDol seems to have lifted the show back up to “watchable” status just in time, with a storyline that actually has some sort of trajectory, rather than the hum-drum pinings of last week.

When Saori tells Nanako and Yukari about an upcoming local idol competition that they’ve been entered in, the Nagarekawa Girls decide to create a new song that captures the ideals and experiences of the group beyond Uogokuro’s jingle. The four girls splinter off into their various specialties, while Nanako is left to write the lyrics for the song–a task she is none too confident about. As the competition draws nearer, Nanako must set aside her self doubt and utilize her time as a local idol to write the best song she can muster.

LocoDol‘s last handful of episodes have spent more time loitering on a mundane topic, than they have telling some sort of overarching story–earning the show its slice-of-life cred. While some of those episodes have been worthwhile and have proven the winning combination of this somewhat cliched group of girls, the last one in particular, poked a few holes in that formula with an origin story that was more boring than it was enlightening. Luckily this episode enters with the new storyline revolving around the local idol competition that will hopefully see the series home–there being only two episodes left past this one.

Much like Free! Eternal Summer, LocoDol‘s best and most focused episodes came out of an arc about a competition, specifically the mascot competition that Uogokuro took part in. The series is at its sweetest and most charming when it plays up the relationships between its characters, but without something driving the storyline, that saccharine quality can become a little tiresome and lead to navel-gazing of the non-philosophical variety–in other words “aren’t these two cute… ahhh”. The idea of a competition directly pushes the characters to write their own theme song this time around, leading to some thoughtful probing into Nanako’s still-present timidity with certain aspects of being an idol, as well as the growing closeness between Yukari and Nanako. Nanako’s lack of self-confidence and her consistent surprise with the Nagarekawa Girl’s local popularity, is a realistic take on the feelings an average high school girl would probably have about a slowly gaining celebrity status, local or not. She doesn’t rise to her status overnight, ready to take on the cultural responsibilities and expectations of a local idol. If she did, the show wouldn’t have its charm to fall back on, as seeing Nanako fumble through becoming an idol is half the fun of the show–see Shounen Hollywood, or at least the first three episodes, for the opposite effect. Best of all, the upcoming local idol competition serves as the best setting to help evolve Nanako out of her “what am I doing here?” phase, and into a girl who is able to better handle the issues that come along with being an idol. After all, it’s the conclusion that this story rightfully deserves, especially if Nanako retains some of her clumsiness–proving that becoming an idol has matured her rather than changed her.

Image of Yukari seeing Nanako to bed

To get to the less refined points of the show, this week’s episode showcased a few good reasons why fan service works so much better in comedy series than it does drama. The handful of scenes here which do dip their toes into the murky waters of fan service–and I do mean few, just to reinforce that LocoDol isn’t often that kind of show–do so with comedy as the ultimate goal. Many shows in the comedic realm, go straight for the idea of the quasi-nudity itself being the joke when it comes to fan service, but LocoDol does us one better by taking these scenes to a meta level. In one instance, Nanako is attempting to remember the various moments that her and Yukari have shared together, in order to get a kaleidoscope view of what their time together has meant and to pare that down to an easily digestible song. Nanako visits Yukari to get some creative help, and we get a montage of the two brainstorming, Nanako writing and finally an ending shot of the two in a bath together–everything below their shoulders hidden by well-placed bubbles. To pause for a moment, I should note that I’m not a “fan service kind of guy”. Most shows which are rampant with it, do nothing for me and usually only serve to simplify the importance of the female characters–when a heroines main reason for being on a show seems to be her body or the way the artists can cleverly showcase it, she tends to lose a level of agency, for whatever reason. *Insert eye roll*. Sure there are exceptions to this–Faye Valentine and Asuka Langley Soryu come to mind, but they both belonged to some of the best written anime of all time–but with a series as on the edge of quality and crap as LocoDol, I wouldn’t usually see such scenes as a good sign. Here however, the shot exists as a gag pointing out how out of place it is. As soon as the montage ends, Nanako shakes out of it, realizing that the bath has nothing to do with writing and that, more to the point, it doesn’t represent or say anything about what the Nagarekawa girls are all about. This could certainly be a moment of me putting more meaning into something than truly exists, but this gag feels like a commentary on the flippant fan service that lives in many series throughout anime and even LocoDol itself sometimes, outside of this instance. Said bathtub scene is entirely out of place here, and were it not for being a part of some joke, it would exist as the usual piece of titillation that certain members of the audience tune in for, regardless of the meaning behind or nature of the offending show. The same idea is furthered later in the episode, when Nanako remembers the moment once more and thinks to herself that her tub is too small for two people, further invalidating the scene and pointing at the illogical situations which typically arise, in order to “service” the fans in such a way. LocoDol chooses not to implicate the audience, but itself and similar shows for inserting these moments of inanity and taking away from the general momentum of a strong storyline by playing to the lowest common denominator. In fact, the series’ relatively low level of fan service–aside from the first handful of episodes and some of the insert cards–is at least some kind of proof that LocoDol is more interested in playing around with its characters as people rather than as dolls to put on display.

Image of Nanako and Yukari looking back at the camera

That’s not to completely alleviate the show of all blame. Character tropes are certainly a strong element of the series, so don’t go chasing down the newest episode in hopes of seeing a revolutionary, feminist take on the ethos of idol–though you could probably tune in to catch these last three episodes without too much heartache over missing the first nine. No, LocoDol isn’t interested in stirring the pot too strongly, but at least it usually understands when to take advantage of the thoughts and emotional resonance of the female protagonists instead of the audience. Usually.

Epidsode Eval: Tokyo Ghoul (Ep. 10) – Ghoul to be Kind

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Touka's brother not using the door

Tokyo Ghoul, Episode 10: A-

The 10th episode of Tokyo Ghoul is a perfect amalgamation of everything that’s come before it. In other words, if you’ve liked the general tone and attitude of Tokyo Ghoul so far, not to mention the gore factor, this episode should be your bread and butter.

As the conflict between ghouls and doves escalates in the 11th ward, various characters start to wander into the 20th ward–particularly Anteiku–in search of Rize, and thereby Kaneki. When the heavy hitters of the ghoul community make a game-changing move against the Anteiku crew, will the pacifists of the 20th ward answer their play or slink into the shadows for safety?

By now, we should all know what to expect from Tokyo Ghoul. It’s a show that oft features over-the-top violence and an intensity that is built on life or death stakes, both of which are in no short order here. The episode revels mostly in the more bizarre and darker aspects of the Tokyo Ghoul universe, as well as the way in which its characters–both good and bad–consistently beat each other into a bloody pulp. It may sound sadistic, but the show has created a world wherein such occurrences are common place and, once you buy into it, it can be just as entertaining as it is engaging. We’ve been taught that each new character represents a potential threat to Kaneki and his crew, to the point that anyone who enters Anteiku unannounced, is immediately a cause for concern. This is the case for Banzou, a hulking ghoul looking for Riza, who’s intimidating presence is quickly neuteurd when he sits down with Touka and Kaneki over a cup of coffee. His minions–the ones who hung ominously over the clock in the last episode–prove to be an equally unimposing threat to Kaneki and Touka, standing patiently behind Banzou as he enjoys his caffeinated beverage. It may seem silly, but these characterizations–where a new face seemingly brings bad tidings, only to prove to be of a decent heart by the end–not only categorizes many of the ghouls we see throughout the series, but also captures the main conceit of the show; don’t judge a book by its cover.

Image of Suzuya hanging out into the night sky

By cleverly and consistently putting us in the shoes of the possible prey–close to Kaneki, as a newly minted half-ghoul with a human’s mindset–we’re always somewhat surprised to find that a new character doesn’t have the worst of intentions after all. Going back to the beginning of the series, Anteiku seemed somewhat threatening and creepy at first, the viewer not quite sure what the intentions of Touka and Yoshimura were, especially amidst Kaneki’s evolving ghoul form. Soon though, the two ghouls proved to be Kaneki’s saviors, taking him under their wing and providing him sustenance. The same idea generally follows with Nishiki, who tried to eat Kaneki’s good friend, only to end up a vital element in the battle against Tsukiyama later on. In fact, besides ghouls in the Aogiri Tree organization–somewhat of a ghoul terrorist group or ghoul gang–and Rize, most of the ghouls we’ve seen throughout the series have found some level of redemption or have shown some type of positive characteristics by the end of this episode. These examples–which prove the ills of book-cover judging–stand as evidence in the case Kaneki made to Amon about a peaceful coexistence between ghouls and humans. Though they have certain needs that potentially fly in the face of human life, practically all of the ghouls of the 20th ward have figured out ways to feed their primal needs without murdering human innocents. This care and sacrifice, as well as the ghouls’ keen understanding of the need to be there for each other, shows a humanity that many of the actual humans among the cast don’t seem to have. Such positivity is easy to lose among the hyped up violence of this episode–brought about by the actions of the 11th ward ghouls–but it’s the underlying message that reminds us that the bad seeds of the 11th ward represent no ghouls besides themselves.

We’ve been lucky this season to get a handful of anime series that handle action and character development with equal care. Tokyo Ghoul, with its shamefully enjoyable gore fights alongside its multifaceted characters, fits that description to a ‘T’. The show doesn’t let up on the dramatic stakes, consistently keeping things interesting through tense familial situations and the ongoing threat of either a ghoul takeover by the 11th ward, or a ghoul slaughter led by the doves. With two episodes left, now’s the time to jump on board the Tokyo Ghoul express, if you can handle the intense ride. Oh, and don’t mind the blood splattered walls, those stains come right out.

Epidsode Eval: Free! Eternal Summer (Ep. 11) – Swimmer in the Rye

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Haru floating in the water

Free! Eternal Summer, Episode 11: B

This week’s Free! Eternal Summer certainly goes into some interesting territory–Haru’s issues with taking control of his life and assuming a level of responsibility, abound–but the over-the-top dramatics of the show, take what was a well thought out character study and cheapen it to a level of soap operatics.

After the results of last episode’s relay race, the Iwatobi swim team is hard at work, getting training help from the likes of Gou and Gorou–the guy who runs the local swimming gym. With Haru still acting odd, the rest of the team is worried about him, especially Rei and Nagisa, who feel like he’s lost some of his Haru-ness by not making it into the nationals-level freestyle race. Haru is unfazed by their consideration, but when Makoto finally confronts Haru with his own worries about the jaded youth, will Haru finally wake up to the world around him?

After all of the Sousuke drama of the last episode, we finally get our focus back on Haru this time around, Sousuke taking a comically-limited back seat to several other characters. While Haru’s issues with turning his talent into some type of career is some of the more interesting characterization we’ve seen in Free!, it simply isn’t handled here as well as it was a handful of episode ago. That episode showcased Haru’s mindset and his actions through surreal imagery that echoed how lost he was in his own wants and needs. Here, we don’t get much of Haru’s point of view, but instead see how his attitude is effecting those around him. Rei and Nagisa fear that Haru has lost some essential aspect of his Haruness, since he has forgone his “lone wolf” mentality in order to be a part of the Iwatobi team’s relay races. Rei even delivers a sweet monologue about the power of Haru’s awesome swimming to bring in new people to the sport, merely through how brilliant it is to watch Haru when he’s “in it”–thanks Garden State. Alas, all Haru can retort with is dusting his “friends” off his shoulder. Ultimately, that’s what’s so frustrating about this episode; while the Haru of a few episode ago was sympathetic and lost, this version is just being a bratty jerk. He can’t take a compliment and will listen to exactly no one when they’re just looking to help him out. Haru may be annoyed and tired of people trying to live his life for him–he definitely has a different outlook than everyone else on swimming and what he wants to do with it–but the way to handle such situations, isn’t to scream and yell at someone who is telling you how much they care about you. There’s a man-child quality to THIS Haru that makes him hard to deal with as a viewer–I really just wanted him to sit down and shut up for most of the episode. Even Makoto telling Haru how much they all love him, doesn’t seem to affect Haru in the right way. I realize that Free! is built on over-the-top character drama, but sometimes it feels purposeless, at least as far as evolving the characters go.

Image of Haru and Makoto in the light of fireworks

This episode is also dragged down by a bit of the “just kiss him!” syndrome, in the way that Haru and Makoto deal with each other in the midst of their confrontation. Free! Eternal Summer has always had a following that’s probably hard at work on their next boys love doujinshi–based around the characters–but the show itself, has always felt asexual. None of the guys are interested in girls, but they don’t seem interested in each other either. However, when Makoto grasps Haru’s wrist as he’s flailing about–probably yelling about how no one will let him truly be free–and the two draw closer together, fireworks exploding in the background, it’s kind of hard to ignore the sexual tension. There’d be nothing wrong with a relationship between Haru and Makoto, but two episodes left feels like the wrong time to do it. The series has clearly decided–at least up until now–to be a sports series first, focusing on the beauty of swimming, and to be whatever the fans want second. This means that any boys love aspects are left up to the viewer to decide on in their own time and in their own mind. Here, with Haru’s fit against Makoto, the two argue with one another passionately, all while the swimming elements tend to fall to the wayside. It’s not just this episode or this scenario, though; the episode where Nagisa is up in the air–as far as being a member of the team goes–has the same issue. There is a strong focus on a particular character, but the sense of competition is practically thrown out the window.

With a faceless competitor on the horizon but no real hints past that, this episode fails to build any stakes either, leaving us with Makoto and Haru’s confrontation as the most interesting part of the episode. Maybe I’m being too harsh. If this is what the majority of fans would prefer to see out of Free!, I’m glad to see that their voices are heard. When you consider how few of these shows exist to placate a female fanbase, it does remind you that maybe they’re owed one. Just maybe.